Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Interview with a Former Molecular Biologist

This networking thing is still a real challenge for me.  I'm working hard to introduce myself in terms of where I am going (I'm a freelance editor and I work in instructional design) instead of where I was (I have a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology).  When you start with the second one and then say, "I am looking for a job," you get a look that says 'how smart do you think you are?' and someone suggests you get a job at a University.  'Uh, I had one of those,' and I usually get too flustered trying to explain why after 10 years at the bench I would walk away form that, instead of focusing on what I am doing to develop better communication skills.  I had this problem again at a networking event for Women in Science that was part of the Seattle Science Festival recently.  It was a great mix of people in outreach (ALL the museums were there), trainees and working professionals.  One of the people I met there introduced herself as a "Former Molecular Biologist."  Fortunately, she agreed to meet with me after the event and tell me a bit about that path.

She realized in graduate school she wasn't going to stay at the bench, and ended up working at Science Magazine.  Some of her experiences won't be relevant to the current job market, but she understood that.  For example, she said that science writing these days is possible to break into, but it can be a bit dicey to make a living at it.  Places like Wired Blogs or SciAm blogs make it easier to have a voice, but they don't cut big checks.  From there she transitioned into her current position as a usability expert at Philips.  They design new products, and she helps engineers make them impossible to use incorrectly.  We actually talked very little about her current job, although I'm curious about it now.

What we talked about instead what how to make that first step away from the bench.  She is fortunately very well connected to many people who had moved away from bench science at various career stages, and had a lot to say about what worked well for them.  Her biggest piece of advice was to create a transition story for yourself.  A good story can save you from that flustered babbling in and scenario.  And I need a story that shuts the door on a career as a scientist.  Not burn the bridge, just make it clear that I am going somewhere else now.  These days I feel like grad school is a bit of a black hole- I just can't move beyond the clutches of having a Ph.D. and the trappings of an academic career path. 

In her case, she enjoyed the challenge of research, but wanted much more human interaction.  She had a friend who was often in an organizational role in lab, and moved from a post-doc to an Operational position.  Her partner took a couple classes in bioinformatics and enjoyed the computation, and ended up in a support role a tech company.  See how that works?  And no one  says to them, "but your dissertation work seemed so promising..."

So how does the transition story come together?  She suggested I go back to what motivated me to go to grad school in the first place, because that probably hasn't fundamentally changed.  Then think about where I want to go, and weave the story so that my transition to this new place I am going (that suits my motivations and values) is inevitable.  In her case, she loved the process of solving problems, but found bench work was too small scale for her.  Helping teams catch and solve problems is much more inline with her interests and abilities.  She said most people have had a transition of some sort, and if you tell the story with optimism, they can identify with it.

What does this mean for me?  I'm still working on my own transition story.  More on that as it develops.


  1. I really like the advice you got from FMB . . . it's totally congruent with a workshop I went to on digital media, which had a huge emphasis on storytelling and its impact.

    One set of slides in particular may be helpful to you and I'll see if i can find the link.


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  3. Thanks Bart. I particularly liked the segment on the fundamentals of storytelling. Protagonist, plot has a beginning, middle and end... I think the part I am uncomfortable with the 'end.' I'm not sure where I am headed/have arrived yet. Looks like I'll use some artistic license to finish the story.